Trenton officials gridlocked on passing city budget

Ron McMullen represents some 1,100 Trenton municipal workers who might not get a paycheck next week because the city council is so gridlocked that it cannot pass a new budget. Trenton’s looking at a government shutdown and union members lit up the council’s phones with 2,000 complaints Thursday.

“They had bills due next Friday. They don’t know if they’ll be able to pay those bills at this moment, right at this moment. That is a tragedy in and of itself,” said McMullen.

“If we don’t pass a budget, we are basically welcoming and inviting a state takeover of the city, which I don’t think anybody wants,” said Councilman Jerell Blakeley.

Blakeley says Trenton depends on getting millions in transitional aid from the state but in return it needs the Department of Community Affairs, or DCA, to sign off on its budget. DCA liked the $215 million budget proposed by Trenton’s new mayor Reed Gusciora. The council, however, refused to even vote on the mayor’s budget amid acrimonious testimony.

“My relationships with council, individual council people, are like shifting sands. You have one ally one day and then they’re your adversary the next,” Gusciora said.

“The mayor can’t step in our turf. He’s in our turf, calling emergency meetings, which he’s not allowed to do. We’re two different entities,” said Councilman George Mushcal.

Consider Mushcal an adversary. He opposes the mayor’s budget because it raises the municipal tax rate by more than 11 cents. So the council made cuts, offering its own spending plan that would only raises tax rates by a nickel, but the DCA rejected it as unsound.

“The city struggles, as many municipalities do, with different priorities. There’s the needs of the taxpayers — trying to keep taxes low — but also attempting to maintain budget stability and independence,” said Melanie Walter, director of the division of local government services at the DCA.

Unstoppable force, meet immovable object.

“Basically it’s a free-for-all. If you don’t want to take what we spent two months for to try to correct it and help everybody in the city of Trenton to lower the budget down, then why have a budget? Just do what you want. They’re recklessly spending and they don’t want to be told what to do. They’re out of control,” said Muschal.

Muschal says, the council might once again pass another temporary budget. Friday, in a rare show of unity, the mayor and several council members welcomed a redevelopment project that could bring much-needed retables to a cash-strapped city that’s seen hard financial times.

“I really hope my colleagues vote to pass this budget, because if they don’t Armageddon is going to come to the city of Trenton,” said Blakeley.

The shutdown showdown is scheduled for Tuesday at noon. The council will get three hours to either adopt a budget or punt it to the state.

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